CENTER FOR U.S. WAR
VETERANS' ORAL HISTORIES
Russell L. Wilkens
Vietnam War Oral History Interview
US Navy, USS Forrestal
Date: December 14, 2016
Interviewer: Carol Fowler
Summarizer: Jon Furson
Russell Louis Wilkens was born in July 1946, in Teaneck, New Jersey. Prior to joining the Navy at the age of 18, he attended Long Branch High School. Wilkens served in the Navy from January 1966 to January 1968, achieving the rank of Third Class Petty Officer (E4). The only other member of his only family who ever served in the military was an uncle in World War II. Wilkens’ father had wanted to become a Marine but instead ended up working as a civilian on the Manhattan Project, the secret operation that produced the atomic bomb. In retrospect, the senior Wilkens told his son that, had he not worked on the Manhattan Project, he probably would have died in World War II.
Shortly after Wilkens enlisted in the Navy, he received a letter instructing him to register for the military draft, which confused him somewhat, but he advised the local draft board that he was already in the service. He had completed an electronics vocational program in high school, which helped determine his military specialty in the Navy after enlistment.
In January 1966, Wilkens attended boot camp in Lakehurst, New Jersey and was then assigned to the Naval Air School in Jacksonville, Florida. Upon completion of his advanced training there, he was promoted to the rank of third class petty officer and was stationed at an aviation workshop in Norfolk, Virginia. Using skills he acquired from both vocational and navy schools, Wilkens worked on the navigation system for the autopilots of F-8Ds. In late 1966, he moved to Naval Air Station Oceana, in Virginia Beach, Virginia, the only Master Jet Base on the East Coast, where he worked on F-4B Phantoms.
After serving in Virginia, Wilkens was assigned to the crew of the USS Forrestal at Yankee Station in the Gulf of Tonkin off the coast of North Vietnam, where he worked twelve-hour night shifts. The on hand supply of bombs in naval stores had dwindled and was critically low by 1967. World War II and Korean War surplus ordnance in poor condition was being used to maintain the frenetic mission rate. The available bombs, from an old ammo dump near Subic Bay in the Philippines, were coated with decades of accumulated rust and grime and stored in moldy, rotting original packing crates. Wilkens was told that the Forrestal’s commander, Captain John Beling, was advised that the old bombs could be a danger to the ship and should not be kept on board unless absolutely necessary.
Despite the potential danger, the corroded bombs had to be used, because they were the only ones available to drop on the enemy. On July 29, 1967, as a plane on deck was preparing to take off on a mission, an electrical failure caused a rocket to accidentally fire and hit another plane. This catastrophe caused a chain reaction of explosions of nine of the obsolete bombs, and a fire spread through the ship. The first blast killed all the specially trained firefighters, leaving untrained crewmen to improvise. Some used foam on the fires, which was correct, while others used seawater, which only washed burning fuel into the decks below.
A total of 134 men died in the disaster. One of the survivors was future Senator John McCain, then a pilot. Following this incident, all new Navy recruits are trained in firefighting, to help prevent future similar situations. Wilkens, who was fortunately below deck when the explosions occurred, stayed there to avoid being killed. Forty-five men from his unit were not as lucky and died. One of his friends would never see his daughter. After the fire, the crippled ship sailed to the Philippines, where it was deemed a miracle that it did not sink on the way. Wilkens was reassigned to the USS Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Upon returning home, Wilkens faced many life problems, causing him to believe he was cursed for surviving the Forrestal incident. He joined the National Guard but left after a year. Although apparently suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, the only benefits Wilkens has received since his time in the Navy have been education assistance and a home loan through the GI Bill. His girlfriend of many years was killed in a car accident. To help deal with his problems, Wilkens has a small den he goes to for meditation exercises. He said, “It’s okay to cry.” Wilkens is an active life member of the VFW and the Military Order of the Cootie, as well as the American Legion, Disabled American Veterans, and Vietnam Veterans of America. He currently resides in Manchester, New Jersey, where he is a member of Leisure Village West’s Men’s Veterans’ Club.